When I was little, I used to stay some summers at my Aunt Mariel’s house, where the fog would roll right up to the back porch some nights. I could see it from my room, which was really a home office with a twin mattress. I was afraid of that fog. It was beautiful and terrible at the same time. I loved the smell of the lake and the humidity, but when the dewy curtains of mist would roll right up to the house, I was afraid if I stepped off the porch I’d fall down into an abyss.
In the mornings, the fog was still scary, but in a different way. I would walk down onto the yard, where I could see my feet below me and reassure myself they were touching grass. It would give me a bit of a thrill, feeling as though I might step into nothingness, but with the warm reassurance of daylight to keep me grounded. One day while I was doing this, my Uncle Peter got up from reading his newspaper there on the porch swing with his coffee. He wiped his stubbled face on his flannel sleeve, and walked away from the house. Usually he would call inside to Aunt Mariel, telling her in a few short syllables where he was headed. Today she was singing softly to herself, and I enjoyed the way her voice mixed with the splashing sounds of the water and the chime of the dishes in the steel drainer. I wiggled my toes in the grass and watched as the fog sifted over them, imagining I was a giant walking through clouds. I listened for his familiar, rough voice, curious where he was going. But today he said nothing.
The porch swing stopped creaking and stood still. I looked up and saw Uncle Peter, already far away, walking toward the woods. The woods weren’t that far away. You could easily see them from the house, so I was allowed to play there sometimes as long as someone was outside and I could still be seen. I could still see my feet below me, but from far away, Uncle Peter’s legs looked to be entirely swallowed up in the billows. The rest of him was still visible, but it was as though he were no longer entirely in this world. I called out to him.
“Uncle Peter!” I yelled across the field. He walked a few more steps, as though he did not hear me, but then he stopped and turned around, slowly, three quarters of the way, half facing the lake, half facing me. For a moment he looked at me – or at least I believe he did, because I could not truly see his face. I hesitated, not knowing what to say. He turned away again, just as slowly, and continued walking into the woods. Before he reached the trees, the fog, which was a little denser there, obscured his figure from my line of sight. The ground beneath my toes felt terribly cold. I refused to let my feet run, though they desperately wanted to run, to get off that cold grass, and away from that fog before it swallowed me, too. I walked with measured steps into the house.
“Aunt Mariel,” I said, as she hummed a few words she’d forgotten. She kept right on singing and humming. “Aunt Mariel,” I said, a little louder. She turned off the water.
“Kate?” She put down the plate she’d been washing and wiped a few small soap bubbles off her hands with a towel. It was unlike me to interrupt.
“Uncle Peter went into the woods.”
“It’s okay, Kate. You know he does that some mornings.”
I did already knew this. I looked at her, unable to explain what I wanted to say, because it was too ridiculous. I stood there, looking at her, wanting her to understand, and also wanting her to reassure me. She knelt down beside me and put her hands, still hot from the water, around my back.
“Look,” she said, pointing over my shoulder, “the sun is coming out. Why don’t we go have some tea on the swing. The dishes can wait.”
I followed her outside. The sun was coming through the clouds now in warm bursts of yellow light. It made the fog look pretty again, even while it was burning it away. In its last gasping moments, the fog was suddenly a glorious thing. The grass was wet with diamonds and the sunlight illuminated the broken clusters of mist, cutting it into slices, making the residual milky swaths look like pathways to heaven. When this happened, I liked to run into the field and watch for the wildflowers, now just visible, to appear beneath the little clouds beneath my feet, and I would pick them as they appeared, collecting a bouquet for the kitchen as I twirled and imagined I was a beautiful white bird sailing up to the sky, or else a princess, gathering a crown of golden flowers wearing a shimmering dress as flowing as water and as light as air.
But not on that day. On that day I sat on the swing with Aunt Mariel. I dared not get off the porch to look for flowers. The swing creaked unevenly, as it always did, and I drank my tea. I looked again to the woods. The fog was nearly gone. Uncle Peter’s coffee cup was still on the floor. I touched it with my toe: it was cold. The cup tipped over.
Aunt Mariel, never one to scold, picked it up. I went to the kitchen for a sponge and began mopping it up, but she took it from me and finished cleaning up the spill. Then she went back into the kitchen and continued the dishes, but this time there was no music. There was only the residual creak of the porch swing, which now seemed ceaseless, and the metallic clang of dishes in the drainer. Every plate placed in there made a slight scraping noise that set my nerves on edge. The sun had now washed over the porch, filling it with warmth and light. I huddled my knees up under my skirt and stayed there a long time, even after Aunt Mariel had turned off the water and her feet had sounded on the staircase that went to the upstairs rooms. Out on the lake, I could see a small boat, maybe a neighbor from down the road out to catch some fish. I watched a fawn and its mother wander from the edge of the woods into the field for a moment. The fawn nibbled here and there, then looked at me. It stayed still for a moment, moving its ears a little bit. The mother raised her head. Together they walked back toward the woods, entering near the same small path where Uncle Peter had gone in. I watched for Uncle Peter’s heavy form to emerge from that place, listening to the sound of sparrows and the occasional call of a crow. The sun on my skin suddenly started to feel too hot, and I got off the swing and went back into the house.
At supper that evening, there was a place set for Uncle Peter, but he never came. He didn’t come the next night, either. The third day, my mother arrived to come get me. We never went back to that house.